Winnipeg’s oldest and largest congregation, has joined the local Jewish community’s efforts to bring Yazidi refugee families to the city.
On Jan. 17, 70 members of Congregation Shaarey Zedek attended a meeting at the synagogue that officially launched Shaarey Zedek’s campaign to sponsor two Yazidi families.
“It was nice to see that degree of support,” said Lorne Weiss, vice-president of the synagogue’s board of directors and co-chair of the Yazidi sponsorship campaign (along with board member Anita Neville, who is also a former Liberal member of Parliament for Winnipeg South).
“We received a significant number of pledges of financial support, and 15 congregants with specialized skill sets volunteered to help in the families’ settlement,” Weiss said. “We have also had a number of our shul members who are south for the winter call and pledge their support.”
With their involvement, the Shaarey Zedek congregants have joined Operation Ezra, a Jewish community-wide effort to bring endangered Yazidi families to Winnipeg.
The Yazidi people are a Kurdish religious minority who were based in northwestern Iraq. An ancient people who practise a religion derived partly from Mesopotamian religious practices, they have long been persecuted by the surrounding Muslim society. Stories of their plight hit the headlines in August 2014 when Islamic State (ISIS) swept into their communities. Those who were unable to flee were taken into slavery – the younger women and children – or massacred. Many of the survivors are now living in refugee camps in Turkey.
“The need is urgent,” Weiss said. “The Yazidis have their own refugee camps because they would not be safe living in refugee camps among displaced Syrian or Iraqi Muslims.
“As Jews, we cannot help but connect the Yazidis’ plight with the situation of our own people in prewar Europe.”
Operation Ezra was initiated last April by a relatively new pro-Israel Jewish group called Winnipeg Friends of Israel, who had made a connection with Nafiya Naso, a Yazidi living with her family in Winnipeg, who spoke at a meeting of Winnipeg Friends of Israel.
Naso has become the voice of the small Yazidi community in Winnipeg and has spoken to several other Jewish groups, including the Shaarey Zedek, over the past few months.
Operation Ezra is headed by co-chairs Michel Aziza and Belle Jarniewski. Among those who have joined the campaign are Jewish Child and Family Service, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and other Jewish community groups. Aziza said that, with Shaarey Zedek now involved, Operation Ezra is sponsoring seven Yazidi families, a total of 35 people.
“In 10 months, we have raised close to $180,000,” Aziza said, “but we can always use more.”
The first two families have been interviewed in Ankara by Canadian immigration officials and passed their medical exams, he said. “We hope that they will be arriving within the next few weeks. They are just waiting for visas.”
Weiss said the Shaarey Zedek board decided last fall to look into sponsoring Yazidi families after hearing Naso describe the plight of her people.
“We determined that we were in a position to offer financial and emotional support to two families,” he said. “We filled out the sponsorship applications with the help of the Mennonite Central Committee, who will be the legally recognized sponsorship holder. We will be functioning as a sub-agent.”
The Jewish Federation of Winnipeg will write the charitable receipts for the campaign, Weiss said, as the Shaarey Zedek constitution doesn’t allow charitable receipts for this type of fundraising.
Shaarey Zedek must have $90,000 in place to support the two sponsored families by the time they arrive, he said. The congregation will also be responsible for finding adequate furnished housing and the other necessities of life.
“It will be a few months before our sponsored families come,” Weiss said. “That gives us time to prepare. It isn’t going to be easy finding a place to live for a family of 10. And we want to find them a place in a neighbourhood where there are already other Yazidi families.”
Weiss said Operation Ezra has received enquiries from other Jewish communities about sponsoring Yazidi families.
Aziza said organizers would eventually like to bring up to 15 Yazidi families, including five sponsored through church groups who have expressed an interest in working with Operation Ezra.